The Bottom of the Harbor

Upper New York Harbor

I just read a great short article/annotated map in New York Magazine about everything that lies beneath the dull surface of the city’s rivers, canals, channels, and open water. It has a couple of great bathymetric images of the upper and lower harbor, produced by Dr. Fred Nitsche at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The images were startling to me—living in the city, the picture you see of it most often, that really works its way into your head, is the MTA subway map, which is simplified and distorted quite a bit for the sake of clarity. It’s a little disorienting to see the actual outlines of the land and the depths of the water.

There are many interesting things down there—fish, clams, oysters, wood-boring mollusks, concrete-boring amphipods, sewage, silver ingots, dead cars, dead bodies, dead ice cream trucks, a dead giraffe, shipwrecked ships, one shipwrecked locomotive, rats, 20,000 tons of silt (daily), trash (which the Army Corps of Engineers, as if they didn’t already have enough quixotic assignments, is charged with picking up), and more.

This is all fascinating to me, since I when the city gets a little too concrete, I like to find a place to sit and watch the water for a while. If I’m at my apartment in Harlem, I walk across Morningside Park and up through Riverside Park to the Harlem Piers, which stick out over the Hudson at 125th Street. Immediately landward of the piers is one of the world’s great supermarkets, and immediately northward, in a well-fenced and ominously-signed building on pilings over the water, is (as I learned in the article) the northern terminus of a natural gas pipeline running 10,500 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.


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This article reminded me, strongly, of one I read a couple of months ago, in a collection of pieces by Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell was a journalist who wrote for the New Yorker and several newspapers from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, specializing in profiles of the various odd and interesting people and places of New York. In the 1950’s, he wrote a profile of the harbor itself, including its history, pollution, fisheries, and darker secrets—some of which, like the spot in the East River where tidal eddies tend to collect dead bodies, reappear in the New York Magazine article.

Mitchell wrote about all kinds of different people making their lives out of the water in New York: clammers and draggers in Long Island Sound, freed slaves who settled on Staten Island and had a prosperous oystering community until pollution forced the closing of the oyster beds in 1916, men in New Jersey towns at the feet of the Palisades who set weirs for Hudson River shad every spring, and various old cranks and fishmongers who hung out at the Fulton Fish Market (formerly on South Street in lower Manhattan, since 2005 at Hunt’s Point in the Bronx).

These people were mostly on their way out when Mitchell wrote about them, and as far as I know are all but gone now. If there are any still left in the city itself, they don’t form a large part of its collective identity or consciousness. The harbor and rivers today are mostly experienced as the things over the tunnels, under the bridges and ferries; the moat keeping Manhattan safe from Jersey and the Bronx.

As it turns out, though, there is still a fair amount of Nature left in the harbor. There are shellfish (still mostly unsafe to eat), striped bass (gently marinated in PCB’s), shad (gradually returning to their old Hudson River run), and mossbunkers (better known, at least to me, as menhaden). And of course, below all the biology, stubborn geological processes like erosion and deposition are still at work. Since the construction of Battery Park City, a neighborhood in southwest Manhattan built out into the Hudson on fill from the excavation of the World Trade Center in the 1970’s and 80’s, the river’s thalweg has shifted farther out into the river and is now eating away the sediment above the Lincoln Tunnel. The Port Authority assures us that they are working on it.

The New York Magazine article, by Christopher Bonanos, is here. I read Joseph Mitchell out of an anthology of his writings, called “Up in the Old Hotel” (Vintage Books, New York 2008). The Amazon page is here, but do your local bookstore a favor and buy it from them instead.

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3 Responses to The Bottom of the Harbor

  1. Pingback: The Bottom of the River « Oceanographer’s Choice

  2. Miriam says:

    When I lived in Brooklyn, I actually went and poked around the Gowanus canal. There’s even life in there – mostly invasive fouling species, but still. I always loved that NYC was surrounded by water, and my bike commute over the Brooklyn Bridge was the highlight of my day.

    • Sam says:

      I’m not a huge fan of this city, but all the water is one of its saving graces. I haven’t been to the Gowanus, but it’s on my list of places to visit before I leave. It was in the news a couple weeks ago–the EPA is considering designating it a Superfund site, and Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t want it to be.

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